Monks, Generals and Karma: Giles Ji Ungpakorn on Buddhism and Politics
Ungpakorn, Giles Ji, New Statesman (1996)
Throughout history, rulers and rebels alike have used religion to justify their actions. Despite its peaceful image, Buddhism, the majority religion of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, can also be turned to political purposes.
The repressive Thai and Burmese states use Buddhism to legitimise their rule. The Burmese generals claim that they are good Buddhists. But the population, including Buddhist monks, can rise up against them. The Laotian communists of the "Pathet Lao" movement can use Buddhism to justify socialism and the ultra-right-wing Thai priest Kittiwutto can say that "killing communists is not a sin".
The Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and karma (or kam in Thai) are aimed at instilling fatalism in the population. You are born poor or disabled because of what you did in a past life. Kings and millionaires are superior to ordinary people; men are above women. If you are very naughty, you may come back as an animal "longer than it is tall". These attitudes encourage people to accept their fate and not seek to overthrow bad rulers, given that these rulers will surely have to pay, via kam, for what they have done.
Buddhism is also concerned with ending suffering, or took. …